by Sanjena Sathian
Today’s adventure to the el Teniente mine also involved one of those great surprise Globalist adventures. The great thing about Glo travel is that we know we’re orchestrating wild trips like what we got to see today, but we don’t always know how human they’ll be. (See Jessie’s post below about the inside of the mine!!)
Right by the mine itself is an abandoned town called Sewell, named after the American family that used to own el Teniente. As we drove up the mountain, seeing glimpses of some snow dusted peaks and leaving the mine itself behind, we all thought something similar: it felt like we’d been dropped into a small Massachusetts town… in the middle of a Spaceman Spiff comic.
The buildings were pastel-colored and colonial, made of cracking wooden planks and with little white porches. They are relics of a time when American industrial neo-colonialism dominated South America. It’s a story I learned well in high school classes on Spanish literature, and I saw the whole thing like a montage flash before me — the ghosts of America past: rich families toting winter clothes down to Chile to oversee a new industry, excited to make waves in a new place, but all the while keeping a careful distance from the reality of the place.
We visited the El Teniente Club, a ritzy clubhouse — and the warmest place amidst the cold of the mountains — with wood paneled walls, rich red carpeting, and even a pool. Maids could use the pool on Thursdays — the same day the water was changed. Perhaps most impressively, we passed through a perfectly preserved antique bowling alley, where Americans and a few miners as well could come for some classic entertainment on the weekends.
But what we noticed most was how hierarchical the town was. So much so, in fact, that the truly royal residences, the American homes, are no longer there. Those homes made their way back north on ships when the American industry giants abandoned Chile. El Teniente opened in 1905, and Americans slowly built the small universe that surrounds it over the course of six and a half decades. But in the 1970s, when the controversial socialist President Allende nationalized the copper and mining industry, the Americans “fled,” as our guide told us.
Traveling can often make us uncomfortable in our American skin, and this experience was no exception. Chileans today don’t seem to mind us too much, and some even commented on how good American meritocratic corporations were for miners’ quality of life. But it’s haunting to stumble across remnants of our American past. Our footprints are everywhere, and our collective memory seems good at forgetting just where we’ve left them all.